A recent Vanity Fair cover story about actress Angelina Jolie revealed that she had suffered from Bell’s palsy (temporary weakness or paralysis and drooping of one side of the face). But Jolie said she no longer had the disorder—and credited acupuncture for her full recovery.
It took acupuncture a very long time to move from its roots as an ancient Chinese therapy to being accepted as “real medicine” in the West—and even today, most people, including most doctors, think of acupuncture mainly as a treatment for pain such as low-back pain, headaches and pain from arthritis. And acupuncture does treat pain effectively, probably because its placement of very fine needles into the skin in particular spots blocks the transmission of pain signals to the brain and also releases the body’s natural endorphins.
What most people don’t know: Acupuncture also is an excellent treatment for a wide variety of other illnesses and conditions.
Research shows that acupuncture reduces inflammation…improves circulation…regulates the autonomic nervous system (which controls heart rate, breathing, digestion and other body functions)…and balances the production of neurotransmitters, brain chemicals that control mood—all therapeutic keys to treating many health problems.
Here are surprising conditions that acupuncture can treat…
OVERACTIVE BLADDER SYNDROME (OAB)
This problem afflicts one in six Americans and becomes more common with age. You feel a sudden, uncontrollable urge to urinate (which can lead to incontinence), and you may have to urinate many times a day and even several times overnight.
How acupuncture helps: When medications can’t control the problem, electroacupuncture—in which the needles conduct a very mild, nonpainful electric current—often can. The proven approach is using electroacupuncture to stimulate a point in the ankle along what Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners call the “kidney meridian.” This also happens to be the location of the posterior tibial nerve, which controls the bladder.
Recent finding: A team of researchers from several major institutions—including Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Columbia University Medical Center and Brown University—reviewed studies on nondrug treatments for OAB, publishing the results in American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology. The researchers found that electroacupuncture was effective for the problem and improved quality of life.
What works best: Weekly electroacupuncture for 12 weeks. Discontinue the treatment if it isn’t improving the condition after four or five weeks. Patients who respond to the treatment may require additional therapy at individually defined treatment intervals (for example, every three weeks) for sustained relief of symptoms.
Acupuncture may help for incontinence as well: Stress urinary incontinence—passing urine inadvertently when you cough, sneeze, laugh, exercise or lift a heavy object—afflicts an estimated 35% of women, most of them older. A recent study of about 500 women with this condition, published in JAMA, showed that electroacupuncture decreased urine leakage after six weeks. (Using electroacupuncture to treat stress urinary incontinence is still being researched.)
DIABETIC PERIPHERAL NEUROPATHY
An estimated 50% of older people with diabetes develop this nerve disorder, which can cause numbness, burning, tingling and pain in the feet, legs, hands and/or arms—and also increases the risk for infected diabetic foot ulcers and the need for amputation.
Recent finding: A study published in Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies showed that 10 weekly sessions of acupuncture improved the symptoms of diabetic peripheral neuropathy in three out of four patients.
Another new finding: Acupuncture also may help control high blood sugar itself. In a study published in Nutrition & Diabetes, treatment with a diabetes medication (metformin) and acupuncture controlled high blood sugar more effectively than the medication alone.
What works best: Electroacupuncture and scalp acupuncture weekly for 10 weeks. (Scalp acupuncture utilizes advanced acupuncture needling techniques and points on the scalp that have been identified not by Traditional Chinese medicine but by neuroanatomy. In my clinical experience, it often is the most effective type of acupuncture for treating neurological problems such as neuropathy, stroke and mental decline and usually requires additional training by the acupuncturist.)
I have used acupuncture to treat a number of patients with asthma, helping them decrease the frequency and severity of asthma attacks—and reduce the dosage of their asthma medication. (As with all the medical problems discussed here, I almost always use acupuncture in combination with other medical and nondrug treatments—in the case of asthma, those nondrug treatments include certain supplements, conscious breathing, meditation and eliminating environmental and potential food triggers.)
Recent finding: In a study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, German and Swiss researchers added acupuncture (15 sessions over three months) to standard asthma treatment in 184 patients, comparing them with people who had asthma but did not receive acupuncture. Compared with those not getting acupuncture, those receiving it had a 70% greater improvement in asthma symptoms and in limits to their daily activity. They also had two to four times greater improvement in perceived physical and mental health.
What works best: Any style of acupuncture can be effective for asthma, with treatments once a week for 10 to 15 weeks. Patients who respond to the treatment may require additional therapy at regular intervals (for example, every three to four weeks) for sustained relief of symptoms.
Research shows that acupuncture can treat a variety of post-stroke symptoms including pain, depression and insomnia—and can help restore the basic nerve and muscle function that strokes rob from patients.
Recent finding: Researchers from Australia and China analyzed the results from 22 studies on 1,425 stroke patients, publishing their results in Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. They found that electroacupuncture reduced spasticity (in which muscles involuntarily shorten or flex, causing stiffness and tightness) by more than 40% and improved everyday functioning.
What works best: Scalp acupuncture combined with either electroacupuncture or standard acupuncture.
FINDING AN ACUPUNCTURIST
Word-of-mouth is the most effective way to find a competent acupuncturist. Ask your doctors, family members and friends for recommendations. You also can use the “Find a Practitioner” feature at the website of the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM.org).
Talk to the acupuncturist before your treatment to see whether you feel comfortable with him/her, which, I think, is a key element of healing. (Avoid treatment from any acupuncturist who is not willing to talk to you or answer your questions before charging you or starting treatment.)